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Opinion: The British link to attacks on America

Abdulmutallab's case suggests a common theme: The influence of the British Empire remains a key factor in the life of nations that emerged from it.

Students of Sahawa integrated Islamiyyah wave British flags as they wait for the arrival of Britain's Prince Charles in Kano, northern Nigeria, Nov. 29, 2006. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

LONDON, U.K. — Once again, an attempted attack on the U.S. via commercial airliner. Once again there is a British connection. Why does this synergy exist?

Let's start with the obvious: language. If what is still the world's only superpower, America, was a Francophone nation then perhaps France's radical Muslims would be more involved. Same thought applies to Germany or for that matter the Netherlands. You could even add Malaysia and Indonesia and their many different languages to this hypothetical list. If America's native tongue was anyone of these then it is entirely probable that I would be writing about these other countries.

The point is this: The entire Muslim world is in the midst of a civil war. No Muslim under the age of 40 is immune from the struggle going on inside the Umma, the Muslim community.

The radical side in this conflict, practitioners of the Wahabbi/Salafi interpretation of the religion, can be found everywhere from the west coast of Africa to the Philippines. The leader of this side is the network of affiliated ultra-radicals called Al Qaeda. For them, attacks on America are an important recruiting tool. "We are the only ones who take the fight to the infidels on their home territory," is the pitch. They can add that it is American support that allows the Zionist entity to survive. (They never say Israel by name because to do so would convey a degree of legitimacy to the country.)

There is doubtless Al Qaeda recruitment going on in France, Germany and everywhere else there are Muslims in the world.

Now, let's try to understand the British connection. The British Empire is long gone but its social and cultural influence remains a key factor in the life of the nations that emerged from it. This is particularly true in Africa and South Asia where the English language binds nations together. Via the British Commonwealth, ties of immigration, family connections and education to the old "mother country" are very strong.

In earlier attempted attacks on America using planes, the terrorists were drawn from Britain's immigrants from Pakistan. There is a steady stream of back and forth visits from Britain to Pakistan as families reunite, matches are made between brides and grooms from the new country and home villages. Unruly youths are sent back to gain old country values and those who are alienated in Britain seek their true identity through deeper study of Islam in Pakistani madrassas. The encounter with radicalism is possible everywhere along the line. There was also, don't forget, Richard C. Reid, better known as the shoe bomber, who was born a British citizen and made frequent trips to Pakistan.

The case of Abdulmutallab is different in specifics. But the broad point is similar: Nigeria was once part of the British Empire and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab moved easily back and forth from its culture to his own. The failed bomber comes from a well-to-do Anglophile family who sent him to the British International School in Togo, a kind of Eton for the children of West Africa's upper classes. From there he moved on to University College London, one of Britain's and the world's elite institutions of higher education.

The fact that Abdulmutallab was a child of privilege attending a top university however did not mean he was immune to the internal struggle going on inside his religious community. In London there was plenty of opportunity to be pushed and pulled by all sides. British universities are not as apolitical as their American counterparts. All kinds of radical groups find a hearing in them. And Muslim students are as susceptible to the immature romanticism of revolution as other students who commit acts of violence in support of animal rights and/or Greenpeace-style direct action against oil companies.